Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Thompson - A History of South Africa

American students reading George M. Fredrickson’s White Supremacy will undoubtedly be more familiar with the history of Jim Crow in the United States than the history of apartheid in South Africa. Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa describes the period of apartheid in South Africa during the latter half of the twentieth century. Like Fredrickson, Thompson recounts the major policies that the National Party used to enforce apartheid. Unlike Fredrickson, Thompson does not assume the reader has a prior familiarity with this period of South African history. Thompson’s chronology of the major events during the apartheid era will benefit readers with little prior knowledge of South African history. A History of South Africa also expands beyond the time scope of White Supremacy to include more recent historical events.

In White Supremacy, Fredrickson extensively outlines “the attitudes, ideologies and policies associated with the blatant forms of white or European dominance over ‘nonwhite’ populations” in South Africa and the United States (xi). Fredrickson’s work in comparative history reveals how the mentality and world view of Europeans led to the formation of racially segregated societies in the two nations. While Fredrickson thoroughly explores the role of whites in creating these segregated societies, the book leaves the reader with an incomplete understanding of the history of these nations. The book’s focus on white supremacy leaves out a narration of nonwhite resistance to the separate but unequal conditions that the institutions of white supremacy created. In chapters six (The Apartheid Era) and seven (Apartheid in Crisis) in A History of South Africa, Thompson not only details the history of apartheid, but also highlights the role that nonwhites played in resisting apartheid.

The removal of Africans into independent Homelands was an effort on the part of whites to restrict black power and privilege as well as create ethnic tensions between the members of separate Homelands (Fredrickson 240). In White Supremacy, Fredrickson does not elaborate on the African responses to such measures. Thompson, on the other hand, points out that the whites’ efforts were not always successful. According to Thompson, under apartheid Africans “created their own social and economic worlds” (Thompson 201). Although they were the victims of the brutal practices of apartheid, many Africans refused to be marginalized. Popular art and literature was a way for Africans to express their criticisms of the National Party government. Africans also adapted to the economic burdens of apartheid by finding niches in formal sectors or employment or by operating in the informal economy (Thompson 205-207).

Fredrickson’s account of South African history lacks even a mention of organized efforts on the part of Africans to resist apartheid, namely the work of the African National Congress (ANC). Thompson describes how a new generation of African leaders within the ANC helped to place domestic and international pressures on the government. The ANC was successful in organizing wide swaths of society in opposition to the National Party. In response to heavy handed tactics on the part of the government, the ANC also formed a militant wing that opposed the state with violent strikes. ANC attempts to promote an African consciousness were successful in challenging the state’s authority. When these efforts were met with increased violence, international scrutiny began to bear down upon the National Party government (Thompson 207-220).

In his concluding chapter, Fredrickson speculates that in the near future whites will be forced to share political power within a multi-racial state (281). Writing in 1981, Fredrickson did not seem to foresee that the impetus for such a change would come as much from Africans as from whites. Fredrickson envisioned that enlightened whites would accommodate Coloreds and Africans in order to preserve their own role in the future of South Africa. Writing in 1992, Thompson details how the erosion of the South African economy, the growth of the African resistance movement and increased international political pressure forced the National Government into negotiations to end apartheid. In Thompson’s account, Africans played a vital role in shaping the processes that eventually ended apartheid.

Ultimately, the focus of the Fredrickson’s history of white supremacy in South Africa causes Africans to appear as passive actors. Thompson’s A History of South Africa balances Fredrickson’s approach by highlighting the roles that Africans played in determining their own roles in South African history. For the purposes of our course, A History of South Africa will provide students with a better understanding of the overall history of South Africa as well as an appreciation of the African efforts to oppose the institutions of white supremacy.